The Backstreet Boys

2001 Black and Blue Tour

That's right. Jill Stauffer and Caroleen Beatty were in the house at the San Jose Compaq Arena on October 15, 2001. We wanted to bear witness.

Or, as Caroleen put it, listening to Britney, N*Sync or the Backstreet Boys is like witnessing a traffic accident: you know you probably shouldn't watch, but you can't look away. So actually going to see one of these spectacles is like going to a Demolition Derby. This time you're paying, and you're excited about it, but you still feel like you shouldn't be doing it.

Much of our evening was spent in full anthropologist mode, with us sussing out who was there and trying to explain why they were there if it wasn't immediately apparent.

Young gay boys—Easy to explain. Pre-teen girls—Easy. Moms, Dads—Easy. Straight-looking/acting high school aged boys—Hmmm. I don't know. 18–22-year old girls—Again, not sure. Women in their 30s without children?

That's us. We're just curious, and, well, we might like a good pop song—you know, "good" on an entirely different scale than a truly great pop artist like Elvis Costello. No, here,
"good" means only "with majestic melodic arrangement and agreeable harmonies"—and please don't listen to the lyrics.

The Mom sitting in front of us had already made more than one trip to the Margarita Bar before any of the acts performed (yes, there was booze there) when "Let it Whip" by The Dazz Band started playing over the stadium sound system. Mom started boogie-ing, and her daughters were horrified. That's the scene.

Then, the auditorium was darkened. The large video/projection screens showed images of meteors falling from space and hitting the earth. (This seemed strange to me, given all the hyper-sensitivity about violence in movies and on TV post-9/11, that a concert for pre-teens would still open up with unsubtle images of the earth's destruction.)

I thought to myself, "Oh, the Boys are going to be superheros and save the earth!" But I was wrong. Just as in Madonna's and Britney's tours (which I saw on HBO), none of the set themes were really "thematic," they were just neat special effects that some concert designer got to put to use.

After the earth-destroying projections, we were treated to about five minutes worth of strange images that, at the time, looked, to me, like some kind of organic tube, like an intestine or some anal imagery, and which struck me as really freaking weird—until later in the show when more use of the technology revealed to me that what the "tube" had been, really, was a red-rimmed sunset over a mountain shown rightside up and upside down at the same time. So, no, that was not an allusion to anal penetration right after the shots of meteors striking the earth! It was an odd use of technology to make mirror images for no particular reason!

The Boys' first costume was their worst. In accordance with the meteor/fireworks/flame theme, the five were dressed all in black but with these flaming (as in "how gay!") red dickies on. I figured out pretty quickly that the dickies were supposed to be flames, and that the winds buffeting around the Boys on stage were making the dickies dance, in a flame-like fashion. But, whoa, it was lame.

Then everyone disappeared except Brian, who talked to us about something for awhile. I couldn't quite hear it over the screaming girls behind me. All of a sudden A.J. (the one who just got out of rehab) appeared dressed all in white, and, well, they didn't need to dress him for allegory to convince me that A.J.'s fall was also A.J.'s ascension. How the girls love him now! He is by far the favorite! Every pop-loving teen girl in the world wants to be the one who saves A.J. from his sadness and addiction!

Pretty soon all the Boys reappeared in white, and did a dance with canes while singing, and that was fun to watch.

At some point they changed again, and wore blue sharkskin suits with white t-shirts à la Miami Vice for awhile. When they got tired of those outfits, they jumped, one by one, into a wardrobe trunk and disappeared.

Then, after a confusing filler film of the Boys arguing in front of the mirror while changing clothes, they all reappeared on another stage, closer to the back of the room. For this set of songs they weren't wearing matching costumes. This was clearly so the Boys could express themselves as individuals.

I think, in retrospect, that I was drawn to this concert for the same reason I am drawn to Las Vegas even though I don't gamble—the spectacle. Sure, there is plenty to say about that particular desire. But I don't want to get philosophical about this (partly because I assume anyone who really objects to all this will write something for the next issue—so much the better).

Prefabricated pop music such as boy bands make will always have an audience. It will always have its detractors, who will say that it is prefabricated, without soul, corporate product, all that. The detractors are of course correct. But the fans don't care what the detractors say. The young girls want to have dreams of young boys who dance well and sing sensitive songs and (at least officially) aren't gay. These boys are everything the boys in their real lives can't and won't be. They are the princes who swoop in and save the day.

The Backstreet Boys know this. The Backstreet Boys (whether that be the corporate force behind the band, a management team, the Boys themselves, or any number of other players and combinations of all these) are not stupid. The entire show was orchestrated to be exactly what all those pre-teen girls wanted it to be. The Boys love the fans, the fans love the Boys.

There is no room in such a concert for pretension, for fan-loathing, for refusal to interact with the audience. The Boys' performance was in all ways—for good and bad—the opposite of what Anne Senhal describes in her Tindersticks review in this review section. A Backstreet Boys performance is a two-sided adoration. You could be cynical and say that the Boys act this way because they are trained to do so, and they are trained to do so because market research says it's what sells records. And you'd be right, but you'd still miss the point.

The Backstreet Boys will come and go, but there will be a group of "princely stand-ins" for every new crop of pre-teen girls needing an outlet for their romantic fantasies. Every group will have its different "characters"—the rough one, the gentleman, the sexy one, the exotic one, etc. They can be set up this way by a management team, or they can be construed this way by adoring fans (the way Duran Duran members were, when I was a young teen, despite that they were all young British white guys and therefore by no means a poster for diversity; or, for that matter, the way the Beatles were, way back when). In such "princely" groups, all members will be very accessible (in terms of the dream-away factor) so that even the "rough" or "wild" one will be pretty tame, and the "sexy" one won't be too specifically sexy.

Not all girls will be crazy for boys in precisely this way. At age 16, my friend Marilyn and I, both lovers of a very wide range of music, even then, were exceedingly confused by the behavior of teenagers at a Duran Duran concert—who were these crazy chicks who were so excited that they were fainting and vomiting? We were there for the music first. But we (especially I, to be fair) still had our teenage dreams of singing boys.

So, yes, the corporatization of music is destroying the business. But consider this: The Backstreet Boys are harmless, because they are made to be grown out of. There might be something far more destructive in your own CD collection right now. So here's a project I won't take on: we could chart a history of the music industry by means of what kind of "boy bands" prevail at different times: Beatles, Bobby Sherman, Shawn Cassidy, Rick Springfield, Duran Duran, New Kids on the Block.

I suggest this because the Backstreet Boys are a particular symptom of an overall disease of the music industry, but are not the disease itself. The disease comes from the very phrase "music industry"—which should be an oxymoron. Maybe, if corporatization destroys the music business, it will be a good thing. Music is not business. I hypothesize that anyone reading this magazine knows that the Virgin Megastore is not where music is found.

—Jill Stauffer